When designing a strategic conversation, ask, How can we best engage participants as whole people? How can we tap into their logical and emotional selves in a way that leads to smarter choices and action? The De La Salle Christian Brothers are one of the largest teaching orders in the Catholic Church. They operate hundreds of schools, universities, and educational works serving more than 900,000 students in more than a thousand schools and other institutions across more than eighty countries, with a strong preference for serving the poor. Around the world-and for almost three centuries-the Brothers have provided countless people with a quality education grounded in a strong moral and spiritual foundation.
But their numbers are declining every year, due to the aging of the order and a long, steady decrease in new vocations, or recruits. As compelling as their history and mission are, the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience just aren't the talent magnet they used to be.
In 2002, leaders of the Christian Brothers' regional operations across Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea (referred to as the District) needed to come up with a plan for ensuring the continued vitality of their work. At the time, seventy-nine active Brothers were working in eighteen schools across the three-country District-many of them focused on helping poor or troubled kids.
A Catholic order is not your average business organization, to put it mildly. Imagine working at a place where you and your peers are committed to the organization for life. An organization where you all came up through the same formative training as young adults. An organization where, after the workday is done, you go home to find your coworkers there, too.
In short, an organization where work, family, community, and social life are all blended together into a lifelong commitment and identity.
The elected head of the District at the time (who holds the title visitor) was Brother David Hawke, a New Zealander with a warm, pastoral style. The auxiliary visitor, or next-in-line leader, was Ambrose Payne, a pragmatic idealist with keen operational skills who was also principal at a high school in a suburb of Sydney with a large immigrant population.
Brothers David and Ambrose knew that to create meaningful strategies for the future of the District, all Brothers would need to take their declining numbers more seriously. They also knew this would be a challenge, given the Brothers' natural tendency to avoid problems or leave them for leadership to solve.
Working closely with Brothers David and Ambrose, the project team designed a three-day strategic conversation for two dozen leaders across the District, including three lay partners (i.e., non-Brother colleagues). "Please understand that this event is not just another planning session," wrote Brother David in his invitation note to participants. "No less is at stake here than the future health and vitality of the Lasallian mission in the District." The session, held in March 2002 in Narooma, Australia-a quiet beach town a couple hundred miles south of Sydney-included a number of familiar strategy and planning activities, and two key experiential elements.
Much of the first day consisted of level-setting activities, such as reviewing current trends data and prioritizing key issues. The first "experience" came after dinner, when the group watched the award-winning documentary Breaking the Silence: The Story of the Sisters at DeSales Heights. The film tells the story of the dismantling of a r 50-year-old monastery in West Virginia. It follows twelve elderly nuns as they prepare to leave the only life they have known as adults and enter an uncertain future outside. The film shows the pain of a group of devoted women realizing that the role they've played their entire lives is no longer valued.
While the Brothers sat stoically through the screening of this brutally sad film, the few lay partners present seemed very affected; some were in tears. After it ended, the group went to bed without conversation. This was intense input that they needed to sleep on.
The next day, after a debrief discussion of the film, came the main event: a simulation game called Demography in Action. The objective of the game was to adapt, in real time, to the expected retirements of twenty-four Brothers-about one-third of the active Brothers working in t:~1e District's eighteen schools-scheduled in quick succession over the next eight years.
Participants were divided into three teams of eight players each. Each team assumed the role of the District Council (leadership team), with one member playing the role of visitor with final decision rights. Each team played out the events of the coming eight years on a large, colorful, hand-drawn game board showing a map of every location across the District where the Brothers worked. The "pieces" to this game board were the seventy-nine active Brothers, each represented by a cheerful (and nameless) cartoonlike character, with an estimated retirement date shown at his feet.
The teams were given a few minutes to review the expected retirements and form a draft plan. Then a bell rang, announcing that a year had passed-forcing each team to remove from the board all Brothers with a 2003 retirement date. The teams were given a short time to respond to the retirements-either by closing or merging institutions, moving Brothers around, promoting lay partners to leadership roles, or keeping things as they were. This activity was repeated eight times-once for each year from 2003 to 2010-but with decreasing amounts of response time, to turn up the intensity and create the sense of time slipping away.
To the project team's surprise, the energy in the room was extremely high. The groups were actually having fun working through the implications of their own decline.
"The game shocked everybody," Brother Ambrose recalls. "It captured everyone's imagination and freed up the situation. Once you get into the domain of play, there's an opportunity to break through how people normally think about their challenges." By taking a shapeless, depressing fact and converting it into a game where the group could take action, the experience made a challenge that they'd been avoiding much more approachable.
During a debrief discussion afterward, participants made the very observations that the game was designed to evoke. All three teams reported variations on three core insights. The first was "We need to prioritize our energy better and stop spreading ourselves too thin." The second: "If we act sooner, we'll be in better shape and have more choices later." The third: "If you don't have a good game plan going in, you keep getting hit with surprises."
Though the teams had made quite different choices during the game, they didn't bother debating which of their quickly drawn plans was "better." They understood that-at this point in their journey-getting to the "right" plan was not the point. Participants took the game seriously, but not literally.
Even though each Brother in the room could easily identify himself and his school on the game board, the Brothers didn't waste time protecting their turf. After all, it was "just a game."
What's more, says Brother David, "The combination of the documentary film and the board game really helped us to start facing the stark reality of the future. The movie-difficult as it was-engaged the group's emotions.
But then the game really excited them. The whole session was a catalyst for the actions that followed."
While the game would probably have worked without showing the film the night before, it wouldn't have been the same. The movie created an emotional tension that was then looking for release-which came with the outburst of positive energy during the board game.
Was all this design work necessary? What if the project team had taken a more typical approach and delivered detailed reports on the District's resources, with specific recommendations? "That would have just felt like more of the same," says Brother Ambrose. "I can't see how that would have had much impact."
In the months after the session, District leaders took the movie and board game on the road to regional sessions that engaged almost all Brothers across the three countries. They kicked off an ongoing strategy and planning process that's still paying dividends to this day-with surprising results.
While the Brothers' discussion in 2002 focused mainly on options for consolidating their operations, the scale and scope of the District's work has actually expanded since then. The District grew its impact by embracing a shift to lay leadership-to a greater degree than the Brothers had once thought possible. Today, lay teachers and administrators are stepping into the leadership roles vacated by retiring Brothers at different schools. The District has invested in extensive training and leadership-development programs to ensure that lay leaders are carrying forward the legacy and mission of the order.
"Our mission is as strong as it's ever been today-and probably stronger," says Brother David. The Narooma session alone could never have accomplished this result-but it's proved to be a critical catalyst. "If we hadn't had this process to help start us down the path, I really wonder where we would be today."
Once a group has the desire to do something, setting goals is much more straightforward. But clear goals without desire behind them will fail to motivate. What made the strategic conversations at Intuit and the Christian Brothers so effective is that participants in both cases felt the need for change in a way that rarely happens in a standard meeting. After both sessions, it was hard to imagine participants going back to their "real" work and ignoring the agreements they'd come to together.
You could argue that both outcomes were inevitable. Intuit had no choice but to get behind mobile-that's where their customers were heading.
And the Christian Brothers had to deal with their aging challenge sooner rather than later if they wanted their important mission of educating kids to thrive. Yet, as we'll discuss in the next chapter, organizations routinely ignore obvious facts-sometimes to the point of self-destruction.
As we've pointed out before, it's nearly impossible to solve an adaptive challenge in just one strategic conversation. But it is possible to design experiences that leave participants knowing and feeling that they must do something. In both of the cases in this chapter, it became clear that moving forward with the current strategies was not an option. When confronted with an adaptive challenge, mustering the collective courage to let go of the status quo can be the most important step of all.
Moments of Impact – ‘Make It An Experience’ How to DesignStrategic Conversations That Accelerate Change
by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon
by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon